Francis and Kiril: the tale of two Easters

For the first time in three years, in a few days Easter will be celebrated without health restrictions at the Vatican.

The image of a lonely pope, in the deserted square, in the shadow of a sky full of clouds and rain remains one of the most impressive images of the pandemic. On that day in March, in its emptiness, St. Peter’s Square had embraced a new, planetary universality.

The full return of Easter

In the setting of his Urbi et Orbi prayer, Francis had found a way to communicate with closed, confined humanity, regardless of its faith or its atheism. The absence became a more acute presence. “No one is saved alone,” he said.

The decision to limit the participation of the faithful in the Easter celebrations, broadcasting them via streaming, represents a moment that perhaps has passed too quickly in the dizzying actuality that crosses our screens, but which will probably remain for a long time to define one of the basic trends of our time. The Catholic Church followed, in part indeed accompanied the distancing measures, because it understood the health and political reasons that presided over this choice, sometimes adopting in a clumsy way the possibilities allowed by digital to limit the spread of the virus.

How did this decision come about? Paradoxically – at least if we stop at the story of the Vatican divisions – it was Cardinal Robert Sarah, appointed by Benedict XVI prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who signed the decree “In time of Covid-19” (Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Disciplina Sacramentorum, Prot. no. 153/20) which offered general indications to the Bishops.

The text of the decree in its dryness recalled that Easter as “the heart of the liturgical year is not a feast like any other and cannot be transferred.” However, he expressed a decisive formula three times. The celebrations are authorized “to the extent of the real possibility established by those in charge“. In short, if it had not been allowed, the decree encouraged parish priests to celebrate alone “the liturgical mysteries by informing the faithful of the starting time so that they can join in prayer in their homes”, suggesting to help each other with the “means of telematic communication live, not recorded”.

The tight curve of the pandemic has seen a united Catholic Church pass on a front that we could define as responsible. Between health and holiness, in this complicated passage we can measure the relationship of the Church with our extreme modernity. A force that slows acceleration, reduces friction and brings stability to the convulsions of the contemporary.

There was certainly no lack of opposition, among all that of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who was scandalized by this choice: “The Church has denied purely and simply its principles, forgetting that the saint whose name the current pontiff took embraced lepers, that one of the works of mercy was to visit the sick, that the sacraments can be administered only in presence.”

We must note, however, that within the Church few important figures have distanced themselves in a blatant way from these unprecedented measures, even shocking from the liturgical point of view. An exception is perhaps represented by the case of Archbishop Carlo Vigano, former apostolic nuncio to the United States, who entered a conspiratorial spiral that led him to take increasingly radical positions, developing an apocalyptic reading of the pandemic and of political and ecclesiastical management through the notion of deep state and deep church. He will end up being supported by the then President of the United States Donald Trump to whom he had written a letter with singular tones in which he evoked the American President’s struggle against “the children of darkness”.

The position of the Orthodox Church

We find here a radical difference with the position taken by a substantial part of the Orthodox Church that has often explicitly evoked the eschatological dimension of the crisis: the pandemic was read as a sign and as a call to be ready for the end times. In its hierarchy as a whole, however, it has adopted a much less meek approach to health indications, especially in relation to distance and gestures barrier to communion. It should be remembered that the Orthodox make communion with blessed bread and wine, mixed in the holy chalice and administered by the priest with a spoon.

To prevent sacred gifts from falling to the ground, a red veil is held under the chalice and cleans the mouths of the faithful who have received communion. The faithful then kiss the chalice symbol of their belonging to the priesthood of Christ. At the end of the liturgy, priests or deacons consume the remains of sacred gifts and wash the chalice with hot water.

The risk of contagion of these gestures seems evident, but a theological argument was opposite to the epidemiological argument. According to Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, chairman of the Education Committee of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church: “As Orthodox Christians, we are convinced that it is impossible to be infected through the communion of holy gifts, through the Body and Blood of Christ.”

The dialectic between faith and the world

We observe here a tension already noted by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini at the end of the Soviet Union, who had discovered with concern the unpreparedness of a Church “coming out of the catacombs,” but “frozen and therefore unprepared for confrontation with pluralism and democratic freedom.”


n this sense, even the gifts of the Orthodox Church, defined by Joseph Ratzinger as an “authentic Christian asceticism,” risk being an obstacle to the expression of that “clear and profound faith, capable of expressing itself and engaging even in the most delicate frontiers and in the most intricate crossroads of history” of which Martini spoke.

Unfortunately, we must note that this discrepancy will explode with the invasion of Ukraine. The crasis between Muscovite Orthodoxy and Putin’s apparatus will be taken to the extreme by Patriarch Kirill when on March 6, 2022, during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on St. John’s Sunday, Adamic Exile Sunday (“Sunday of Forgiveness”), he delivered a fiery sermon to justify the causes of Putin’s war in Ukraine:

“Today there is a proof of loyalty to [Western] power, a sort of pass for this ‘happy’ world, a world of excessive consumption, a world of apparent ‘freedom’. Do you know what this test is? The test is very simple and at the same time terrifying: it’s a gay pride parade.”

The lesson of Carlo Maria Martini

It is in this sense that, as the vaticanista Jean-Benoit Poulle has noted, a biblical word paradoxically dedicated to “forgiveness” serves as a justification for war in the Byzantine tradition of Caesaropapism:

“And so today, on this Sunday of forgiveness, I, on the one hand, as your pastor, invite everyone to forgive sins and debts, even where it is very difficult to do so, where people are fighting each other. But forgiveness without justice is a surrender and a weakness. Forgiveness must therefore be accompanied by the indispensable right to be on the side of light, on the side of God’s truth, on the side of the divine commandments, on the side of what reveals to us the light of Christ, his Word, his Gospel, his greatest covenants given to the human race”.

In the upheavals of the twenties, a radical difference and a challenge for the universal Church, not only or not so European, of Francis re-emerges. Faced with the return of political theology, confronted with a “holy war” waged by a nuclear power, we can perhaps start again from a piece of advice from Carlo Maria Martini: “the Western Churches will have to show that faith can be lived seriously and meaningfully even in a technical and complex world like ours”.